Vincentian football debuts with first practice
Their shiny silver helmets sparkled in the sunlight, and their navy blue jerseys and pants had nary a scratch or rip on them.
Everything was new in the inaugural practice in pads for Vincentian Academy, which is fielding a football team for the first time at the small, Catholic high school in McCandless.
Two-plus hours later, spirits remained high when the 18 players took a knee on Practice Field No. 7 outside Adamson Stadium at California University of Pennsylvania.
The Royals shared a prayer then listened to words of encouragement from coach Tim Storino.
“This is history,” he said. “You should be proud of yourselves. For the rest of our lives, we're going to say we were here at Cal U., putting on pads for the first time.”
A former assistant at Shaler, Bethel Park and Central Catholic, Storino was the driving force behind fast-forwarding the program's playing debut, moving the timetable up two years from 2014.
The players say they have encountered some skepticism at school but hope to turn their classmates into believers, if not fans.
“Obviously Western Pennsylvania has a rich tradition, so the school is trying to use football to increase enrollment,” Storino said. “A lot of kids want to be part of Friday night football games, whether it's playing or being in the band or being cheerleaders.”
Vincentian will play a nine-game exhibition schedule — every game will be played away — against opponents from the WPIAL Class A Tri-County South Conference, with the opener Aug. 31 at Avella. The Royals will scrimmage Class AA South Allegheny on Saturday.
“I was always hopeful there would be a program,” said Jeremy Campbell, a Vincentian senior lineman from West View, “so I'm glad it is finally happening.”
With five seniors, seven sophomores and six freshman — a junior was still awaiting medical clearance — Vincentian has an inexperienced collection of players, some playing football for the first time in years, others for the first time ever.
“I haven't played organized football, other than flag,” said lineman Chris Henderson, a sophomore from Ben Avon who attends Eden Christian and is playing for Vincentian through a cooperative agreement that also includes Aquinas Academy. “I like that I'll get more playing time. That's a big part of my motivation.”
John Walter, a senior from Bellevue, said he was planning to leave Eden Christian because it didn't have a football program.
“It was definitely special, the first practice,” Walter said. “We were bumping each other. I'm pretty excited to hit people.”
That will have to wait until this afternoon. Vincentian doesn't have enough players to scrimmage 11-on-11, so Storino had the Royals run plays to one side and used assistant coaches to play defense while holding padded arm shields.
“You've got to make the steps,” Storino said. “We're not going to be doing as much advanced plays, but if we can get a couple runs and passes, I think we'll be OK.”
Storino stopped practice twice, using mistakes as moments to make teaching points. When players eased up on their blocks, he instructed them to keep moving until they heard a whistle. When the linemen remained near midfield on a stretch play, he told the offense to run toward a water cooler on the sideline to show “when you get really good, this is what the play is going to look like.”
The Royals believe that they will only get better as the season goes.
“I was afraid we'd be clueless in pads,” said sophomore quarterback Tom Werner, who played at Seneca Valley last fall before transferring, “but we looked like we'd been a team for awhile.”
Storino will take every precaution necessary to protect his players from injury and plans to welcome newcomers with open arms once school starts. One thing Vincentian can offer is the opportunity to play, as most of the Royals will go both ways this season.
Senior running back Danny Kushner hadn't played football since his freshman year at Central, where he was one of 50 players.
“It's so many more reps, a totally different experience,” Kushner said. “It's kind of cool having a smaller team and being one of the leaders on the team. We're all pumped up to play.”
So pumped up that the Royals couldn't wait for the next practice.
“When I came to Vincentian, I knew there was no football team,” said Giovanni Mineo, a Vincentian senior from Baden who will play running back and linebacker.
“Vincentian is not known for football, so we're going to do our best. There was some skepticism, but it's also an exciting time. Some people expect us to fail, so we want to prove we can do this.”
Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7812.